Organic wine & food matching: Ca' del Solo Muscat & Dong steamed whole fish

Randy Caparoso is an award winning wine professional and journalist, living in Denver, Colorado. For a free subscription to Randy's Organic Wine Match of the Day, visit the Denver Wine Examiner.

Because something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is...

The 2008 Ca’ del Solo Muscat (Monterey County; about $18) is not just another pretty girl; as lightly sweet, delectable and fragrant a white wine as it is, blooming with notes of tropical flowers (jasmine and frangipani), lychee and white peppery spices (or as the back label describes it, with Nabokovan alliteration, “a musky, melodious, melon-like meditation on minerality”). It also ranks as another battle cry against convention launched by a winemaker who has done more than make a career out of idiosyncrisity – he has made a career out of turning idiosyncrisities into norms.

Ca’ del Solo, for those of you who’ve been around the block, used to be a brand, formulated by Bonny Doon winemaker (and “President for Life”) Randall Grahm, signifying Italian inspired grapes, wine styles, and yes, leetle girl labels. Today, Ca’ del Solo labels bear “crystalline” micro-snapshots of each wine, captured in their petri dish; connected to silver strings that make the crystallizations look more like floating ova than kids’ balloons.

Ca’ del Solo now also stands mostly for Grahm’s recent conversion, like an Kierkegaardian winemaker of infinite resignation, to biodynamic viticulture.

No matter how “loopy” anyone may say biodynamics – complete with the burying of manure filled cow horns in the vineyard, the spraying of herbal teas according to phases of the moon, etc. -- can be, there could be no sobering a reminder of exactly why many of the world’s most respected vignerons have recently turned to the teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner than the news, reported last week in the Associated Press, concerning allegations of an “organic” company selling fertilizers secretly “spiked” with synthetic chemicals to CCOF certified farms all over California.

Kathleen Inman, winemaker/owner of Sonoma’s Inman Family Wines, wrote me, saying that “it certainly adds another ‘tick’ in the yes column of why moving towards more self-sustainable farming is a good idea.” Inman, who fashions her own liquid fertilizers from worm castings from a nearby worm farm, says “being biodynamic is ideal,” although for now, she is content to make do by supplying her own small organic vineyard strictly from resources she can trust.

Grahm, however, did not simply convert to the full-fledged self-sustainability of biodynamic viticulture. In 2004 he went so far as to divest his wine production company of his two biggest brands, Cardinal Zin and Big House, thus taking his annual production down from 450,000 cases to 35,000 cases (what he called “Doon-sizing”), specifically to finance the development of 120 acres of vineyards near Soledad, California into a 100% biodynamic farm. Ca’ del Solo, the name of the property as well as the label under which these biodynamic wines are being bottled, was certified by Demeter® USA in 2007.

As much as he loved sourcing forgotten, even “ugly duckling,” grapes up and down the California coast to make his Bonny Doon wines (such as his ground breaking, critically acclaimed Southern Rhône style blend, Le Cigare Volant, and his immensely successful Pacific Rim Riesling), Grahm says in the end it “wasn’t sustainable emotionally or spiritual for me.”

This is how Philippe Coderey, the biodynamic guru to whom Grahm turned to direct his vineyard operations, voices Grahm’s revised conception of terroir: “Most conventional wines are fruity… you can feel the fruit, and then, after that… nothing.” By eschewing chemical fertilizers and avoiding things like irrigation, however, the biodynamic grower “is training his vines to go deep into the soil.” Once vines are converted to biodynamic practices that establish a biological and, yes, even spiritual symbiosis with the soil, “you will find inside the bottle of wine the minerality that gives the wine complexity… you’re tasting not only the fruits, but also the soil.” Hence for Grahm, a more fulfilling, transparent sense of terroir.

Dong Festive Steamed Whole Fish

Enough verbiage, what can the Ca’ del Solo Muscat do for you? There is no less than three ways to enjoy this wine, in all its winsome, wise-crackling, perfumed precocity: First, utterly naked, as a well chilled, palate freshening apéritif. Secondly, poured over ice, upon which the wine’s mild sparkle perceptively sighs with pleasure, with a wheel of lime or sprig of mint to bring out the Muscat’s citrus zest and minty freshness of flavors.

Or third, to experience the full, dynamic food versatility of off-dry, buoyantly fresh whites like the Ca’ del Solo, with this recipe for Dong festive steamed whole fish, culled from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s fascinating cookbook/travelogue on the outskirts of China, Beyond the Great Wall:

One 1½ lb. red snapper, cleaned and scaled
¾ tsp. salt
1 tbsp. minced ginger
2 scallions, cut lengthwise into ribbons and then into 2 inch lengths
1 red cayenne chile, seed and cut into thin strips
Generous 1 tsp. peanut oil (or vegetable oil)
5 or 6 Sichuan peppercorns, lightly crushed

To steam fish, you will need a 12 to 14 inch wide bamboo steamer and a wok with a wide pot with a bamboo or metal steamer insert. You will also need a deep heatproof plate (there will be some pan juices) that fits into the steamer and is wide enough to hold the fish (curve fish or trim off end of the tail if necessary).

Wash fish well and dry. Place fish on cutting board and cut 2 or 3 parallel diagonal slashes on each side, cutting down to the bone. Rub all over lightly with salt. Rub minced ginger into the slashes and into the fish cavity. Place fish on plate, and sprinkle scallion ribbons into the cavity and over the fish. Sprinkle any remaining ginger over the top of the fish, and then sprinkle on the red chile strips. Place the plate with the fish in the steamer basket or insert.

Place the wok or pot on the stove and add about 2 inches of water. Place the steamer basket in the wok or pot (make sure water level is below steamer), and bring the water to boil over high heat. Cover the steamer tightly and cook 10-11 minutes, until fish is firm and the flesh in the slashes is opaque and flakes when pulled with a fork.

Meanwhile, just before fish is done (at about the 9 minute mark), heat the oil in a small wok or skillet. When it is very hot, toss in the Sichuan pepper, lower the heat to medium, and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from heat.

Uncover the cooked fish and pour the hot oil over it. Lift the steamer out and onto a work surface, then remove the plate from the steamer. Serve the fish on the plate, with its pan juices, hot or at room temperature. Serve with steamed white rice.

Final remarks: as with any recipe, you needn’t be slavish to this outer-rim style of steamed fish. In Hawai`i for instance, we typically add crushed garlic and rough cut sprigs of cilantro to our steamed fish, and peanut oil is usually sizzled with a dose of soy sauce. Either way, the Muscat’s peppery spiced, citrus fresh fruitiness is the ideal match; the sweetness balancing the chile spice, hot oil and/or soy to a tee, and the tropical flower and fruit qualities reflecting the gingery sensations and digging deep into the delicate white flesh of the snapper… a symbiosis of wine and food terroir!

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